Left, Gerrit Smith. Engraving by John Chester Buttre. Right, James McCune Smith. Gift of A.D.F. Randolph. Both collection New-York Historical Society.

Abolition, Friendship, and James McCune Smith

The most remarkable black New Yorker of the nineteenth century, James McCune Smith was a brilliant European-trained physician and the acknowledged intellectual leader of the city's African American community. He enjoyed a lifetime of close bonds, and a fair share of disagreements, with fellow abolitionists in New York and elsewhere. His friendship with the white upstate abolitionist Gerrit Smith was most unusual for its time. Dr. Smith's 30-odd letters to his friend are the only work in his handwriting to survive.

James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet, also lifelong friends, imagined a bright future for black Americans. Garnet, born into slavery, stressed emancipation as a spiritual process — lifting the soul into a full recognition of its power to do good. McCune Smith, born free, argued that in overcoming their oppressors black Americans would "purify the Republic" and become the great artists, writers, orators, and voices of conscience in the United States. Smith and Garnet split over African colonization in 1859-61 but reconciled by the end of the Civil War.

James McCune Smith had been trained in the new science of statistics during his years in Glasgow. When apologists for slavery misused the 1840 Census to claim that free blacks died younger and were more prone to crime and lunacy than enslaved people, Smith struck back. In a letter to the New York Tribune, he calculated that slavery had caused the death before age 36 of more than 7% of southern blacks, or 179,000 people.

McCune Smith also turned contemporary science on its head. He wrote a dozen essays for Frederick Douglass' Paper called "The Heads of the Colored People," in which he mocked phrenologists who claimed to read character in the shape and size of head bumps. Smith singled out ordinary black working people in New York for careful depiction. Without condescension, he discovered the dignity in each life.

Though a careful student of statistics, Dr. Smith was much too optimistic about the life chances of his generation of black New Yorkers. The black population of New York declined proportionally all through this era, almost no blacks were eligible to vote in New York, and black family life was disrupted by work and social pressures.

Empathy as a Political Strategy

After the riots of the mid-1830s, leading New York abolitionists tried to avoid inciting local opposition. Anti-slavery efforts now focused on the evils of slavery in the South. It was no use trying to convince slaveholders of the sinfulness of their ways. Far better to rally northern opinion against slavery. Abolitionism seized the political high ground by encouraging white Christians to identify emotionally with the suffering of enslaved black people. As an economic or legal system, slavery was remote and abstract. But the stories of individual slaves, especially vulnerable women and children, were painfully real. Their torment challenged the racial prejudices of many white New Yorkers.

Petition-signing was a useful first step because petition drives made it easy to participate in the movement. Illustrated booklets, many designed for children, made the case easy to understand. Popular lectures, fairs, and concerts confirmed the growing legitimacy of the cause. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin brilliantly combined adventure, melodrama, and religious symbolism to create an anti-slavery blockbuster.

Month after month, the American Anti-Slavery Society mailed The Anti-Slavery Record to thousands of American homes, illustrating and documenting the cruelty and violence of slavery. The Society's campaign used the most modern printing and distribution technologies to furnish the American imagination with scenes of horror taking place within their own nation's borders.

Live appearances, performances, and meetings mobilized abolitionist opinion. The Hutchinson Family used rousing music to fire up the crowd's outrage. Audiences thrilled especially to the presence of men and women who had actually been enslaved. Frederick Douglass's noble bearing and eloquence disproved the demeaning way blacks were represented in minstrel shows and lectures on the "science of race." Solomon Northup, Luther Lee, and William and Ellen Craft addressed crowd after crowd with their gripping stories of escape and risk.

Slavery Moves to the Center of American Politics

During the 1850s, conflicts over slavery increasingly strained relationships between northern and southern states. The first major battle of the decade came with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. This legislation put the federal government squarely behind the re-capture of runaways even in the free states, and required that ordinary citizens must, on pain of arrest, help seize fugitives. "It was the beginning of a reign of terror to the colored population," recalled the fugitive Harriet Jacobs. As many as 20,000 African Americans fled to Canada.

Only eight days after its signing by President Millard Fillmore on September 18, 1850, the law claimed its first victim, James Hamlet. The American Anti-Slavery Society published a pamphlet warning free people of color to avoid large cities and public houses, and to stay close to home. It hoped that "the dwelling of every citizen will be an asylum" for threatened fugitives.

Rallying Public Opinion Against Slavery

The advent of the telegraph in the 1840s, together with fiercely partisan penny newspapers and stinging political cartoons, intensified the political crisis of the years before the Civil War.

Horace Greeley's New York Tribune tracked the approach of cataclysmic war through the 1850s. Debates in Congress, outrages in the western territories: every event provoked Greeley's fear that white American workingmen were themselves threatened with enslavement. Often condescending to blacks themselves, Greeley nonetheless brought horrific "facts of slavery" home to readers throughout the country. Greeley helped build a political movement that would lead to Lincoln's victory in 1860.

Rise of Republicans

In the 1856 presidential election, political parties began to embrace distinct sectional perspectives. The Democrats espoused tight limits on federal power, especially over slavery — which they viewed as entirely a matter of local concern. Republicans feared this would lead to the expansion of slavery to the western territories. A vigorous national government, Republicans insisted, would strengthen the economy and preserve individual opportunity. Republicans lost the presidency, but continued to organize. Leaders like William H. Seward of New York and Abraham Lincoln of Illinois advanced the argument that the sectional conflict was deep, "irrepressible," and inevitable.

In New York City, Tammany Hall, the key political and social center of the Democratic Party in the city, was a reliable ally in the Buchanan administration's effort to keep slavery from disrupting the Union. But Lincoln's election in November 1860 was the moment New York Democrats dreaded. On December 20, South Carolina voted to quit the Union. Six more states seceded while last-ditch negotiations failed in Washington. New York was abuzz with talk of joining the South or remaining neutral. Mayor Fernando Wood, a "northern man with southern principles," proposed independence in his annual message on January 6.

The alternative seemed bleak. The southern firebrand Edmund Ruffin had predicted in his 1860 novel, Anticipations of the Future, that war would cut off southern commerce, provoke riots in the North, and lead to northern surrender. As war approached in 1861, and southern business dried up, Democratic-leaning merchants feared the worst. Many faced bankruptcy.

But the attack on Fort Sumter rallied almost all New Yorkers to the Union standard, at least for the moment.

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